Are the Brethren in Christ “Meliorists” or “Traditionalists”?

In evangelical theology, it's no longer just a "battle" between John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius, according to scholar Gerald McDermott.

I make no claims to be a theologian: beside a brief flirtation with the topic as an undergraduate, I have done few readings in Christian theology and have taken far fewer substantial courses in it. However, I like to keep abreast of developments in theology, especially as they pertain to the evangelical branch of Protestantism.

If you’re like me, you’ll want to check out Gerald McDermott’s fascinating article in the latest issue of First Things. (Thanks to John Fea for bringing this article to my attention!) In the article, McDermott inverts the traditional evangelical theological binary: no longer, he suggests, is the evangelical community divided between Arminianism and Calvinism. Today, evangelical theologians are split into “Meliorite” and “Traditionalist” camps.

McDermott explains:

Evangelical theology has long been divided between those who emphasize human freedom to choose salvation (Arminians) and those who stress God’s sovereignty in the history of salvation ([Calvinism]). Now this old division has been overshadowed by a larger division between new opposing camps we may call the Meliorists and the Traditionists. The former think we must improve and sometimes change substantially the tradition of historic orthodoxy. The latter think that while we might sometimes need to adjust our approaches to the tradition, generally we ought to learn from it rather than change it. Most of the Meliorists are Arminian, and most of the Traditionists are Reformed, though there are exceptions on both sides.

This new division has developed from challenges by some of those who call themselves “post-conservatives.” Led by Meliorist theologians like Roger Olson and the late Stanley Grenz, they argue that “conservative” theology is stuck in Enlightenment foundationalism, which seeks certainty through self-evident truths and sensory experience, sees the Bible as a collection of propositions that can be arranged into a rational system, believes doctrine to be the essence of Christianity, and, because it does not realize the historical situatedness of the Bible, constructs a rigid orthodoxy on a foundation of culture-bound beliefs. Responding in part to evangelical excesses in the inerrancy debates of the 1970s, post-conservative theologians developed an understandable distaste for rationalistic, ahistorical, and un-literary readings of Scripture.

In Reformed and Always Reforming: The Post-Conservative Approach to Evangelical Theology, Olson suggests that this brand of evangelical theology is fundamentalist in spirit because it chases heretics out of its “small tent.” He calls his “post-conservative” brand of evangelical theology the “big tent” version.

Read McDermott’s whole article here.

Where do the Brethren in Christ fit into this new paradigm? First, it is important to recognize that the denomination has never been doctrinaire in its thinking, and comparatively few of its intellectuals have devoted themselves to systematic theological study. However, one of the church’s best theologians — the late Luke Keefer, Jr. — has done substantial work to show that the Brethren in Christ have historically identified with the Arminian branch of Christian theology. [1]

Given this foundation, it seems evident that Brethren in Christ people are more likely to fall into the “Meliorist” camp than the “Traditionalist” camp. Consider this:

  • Experientialism — not Enlightenment rationalism — has long been at the core of Brethren in Christ theology. Church founders expressed a desire for “heart-felt” religious experiences — and found such expressions in Pietistic forms of the faith. The church’s earliest Confession of Faith stresses the need for “a new birth, revival of the mind, revival of the Holy Spirit” — not just a rational acknowledgement of salvation, but a deeply felt encounter with the divine. [2] To the extent that this “heart-felt” experience still plays a central role in Brethren in Christ religious expression, members would shy away from Traditionalist paradigms.
  • Since the mid-twentieth century, the Brethren in Christ have articulated a desire to avoid what McDermott calls “culture-bound” interpretations of the biblical text. In describing the church’s decision to cast off prescriptions about “Christian apparel,” John Hostetter claimed that “Christians, who in reality are ‘other world’ pilgrims, should not be regulated by the rise and fall of godless fashions and styles, nor should they be legalized into a form of dress that is impractical and in many cases not meaningfully significant.” [2] Without using such terminology, he recognized that the church’s dress requirements were culture-bound, rather than enduring. A similar rhetoric has characterized denominational statements on women in ministry. (For more on traditional Brethren in Christ dress as “culture-bound,” check out these comments from Hostetter’s son, Norman.)

Of course, the Brethren in Christ are certainly not necessarily on the “cutting edge” of evangelicalism (distanced as they sometimes are from developments like emergent theology and similar expressions). So is it safe to link the denomination to Meliorism without acknowledging its susceptibility to Traditionalism? Readers, what do you think? Even if you don’t consider yourself a theologian, I’d love to hear your response.

Notes:

[1] Luke L. Keefer, Jr. “Arminian Motifs in Anabaptist Heritage,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 13, no. 3 (1990), 293-323.

[2] “A Copy of the Confession of Faith of the Brethren [in Christ],” trans. William M. Meikle, in Carlton O. Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1978), 552.

[3] John N. Hostetter, “Business Sessions of General Conference,” Evangelical Visitor, July 6, 1953, 4-5, 16.

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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